Public opinion expected to shift in favour of term limits abolition

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  • <B>Minister of Home Affairs</B> Michael Fahy.<B></B>

    Minister of Home Affairs Michael Fahy.

Government expects that public opinion will shift in favour of the term limits policy reversal as the economy rebounds.

According to the policy review paper which informed Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy’s decision to eliminate term limits, the economy, business and Government will benefit from the change but it will likely do nothing to address “disparity” between Bermudians and non Bermudians.

That, it says, is a matter for “ broader policy arrangements”.

The document — “Impact Assessment on the Elimination of Term Limits” — was obtained by this newspaper and can be read in full on our website.

Among the four social and political impacts of eliminating term limits listed in the document are that it would send a message of “social inclusion” to guest workers and that the international business community’s support of the policy reversal will deliver a “net positive impact” to the society in terms of guest workers “social contribution to local events, charity and organisations, in addition to being consumers helping to bolster the local economy.”

But the document also notes the possibility of a negative perception from “community stakeholders who don’t clearly understand the details of the policy.

“Communication and staying ahead of the message on policy change is critical. In the medium to long-term, it is expected a rebounding economy in conjunction with no term limits will help shift public opinion.”

Government has been accused of failing to properly consult organised labour and the general public on its decision on term limits.

It gave “stakeholders” five business days to provide feedback to the document.

Its policy evaluation statement describes the Term Limit policy as a “redundant effort to control work periods for guest workers” and as a “duplication of effort concerning processing within the Department of Immigration, utilising additional human resources and bottlenecking the intended streamlining of work permits.”

It continues: “In light of this evaluation, it may also be presumed that the elimination of term limits will not help alleviate the disparity between Bermudan and non Bermudian workers.

“Broader policy arrangements are required. Policy recommendations, not carefully monitored, may actively work to expand that gap.”

Among its seven key recommendations are to implement a “clear and consistent communications strategy” to inform the public on the benefits of eliminating term limits.

“This must be substantiated using various forms and put in terms which speak to Bermudian grassroots. An important part of that campaign must be about the protection and promotion of Bermudian employment. Work permits may be tied to advanced training opportunities and sponsorship of policies which articulate ‘Bermuda First’”.

It also suggests that the work permit process be automated — a work in progress — so that work permit statistics and employment activity of employers are easily tracked.

“Automation and advanced tracking will enable the effective monitoring and enforcement of work permit violators which will become paramount as term limits are lifted.”

And it recommends a “rigid and quantifiable labour market test” for work permits. “Work permits shall be established for limited periods based on predefined criteria and subject to the position being genuinely unfillable by a Bermudian or holder of a Permanent Residents Certificate.”

We asked Government for a progress report on the implementation of the recommendations but no response had been received by presstime.

Jonathan Starling, whose request for the document’s release to the public almost led to his arrest at the Ministry’s Church Street headquarters on Tuesday, said that the document contained “nothing explosive” and there was no reason why it should not be in the public domain.

“In many ways doing so would clarify a lot of issues and confusion concerning term limits,” he said.

“The 'impact assessment' itself called for a clear communication strategy on this issue, and the implication of that recommendation seemed to me that the Government recognises (as it does in the policy document) that this is a potentially contentious issue socially, and that to allay misunderstandings the Government should set out its rationale clearly and calmly in order to reduce the social tension that abolishing term limits could cause.

“It seems that the Government ignored this recommendation and essentially put the cart before the horse, and so ended up alienating people.”

But he criticised the review for being weighted toward the business point of view even as it recognises social concerns.

A summary of stakeholder opinions includes the perceived risk to business of vacant posts having a bottom line impact as workers end their six years on the Island, the difficulty and costs of replacing those who have to leave and the view that international companies may choose to leave Bermuda for alternative jurisdictions as a result.

“There is no evidence to suggest that jobs, once vacated by guest workers, are then filled by Bermudians.

“This defies the notion that term limits protect Bermudian employment.”

Community concerns noted in the report include a fear of “gentrification” by locals.

“The standard view of gentrification is that guest workers benefit greatly at the expense of lower income residents,” it notes.

“As guest workers impose their culture on the neighbourhood, lower income residents become economically and socially marginalised. This can lead to resentment and community conflict that feeds racial and class tensions.”

It also notes the view that while the policy reversal may make it easier for businesses to recruit and retain guest workers “this may equate to lost employment opportunities for Bermudians who may otherwise qualify for these positions.”

“There is a lack of faith in the system that the process is truly fair and transparent.

“In most cases, employers will get the employees they seek if determined to be non-Bermudian. Lastly, on an Island 21 square miles, the risk of overpopulation and congestion remains a concern and requires a delicate balance.”

Mr Starling’s “sit-in” at the Home Affairs Ministry to ensure the release of the document ended when acting Home Affairs Minister Michael Dunkley promised to let him have it, but after he was threatened with arrest.

After reading a copy of the document provided by this newspaper, he said it was too early to tell if his action was worth it.

“The document itself was not so much the issue as highlighting the broken election promise and a failure to really consult. It also served to push the Government to be more inclusive and transparent (as well as using more foresight) in the future.

“If my action, as controversial as it was, makes this a reality going forward, then I think that's a win for democracy and Bermuda. Even if it sets a precedent for future acts of civil disobedience and greater political maturity (in holding the government, both political and bureaucratic) to account, so be it.”

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Published Feb 7, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 7, 2013 at 8:33 am)

Public opinion expected to shift in favour of term limits abolition

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